I met Revital this week at the protest outside Kfar Maccabiah, where the parties seeking to oust Netanyahu were discussing coalition agreements for a new government. I was speaking with Boris Aplichuk, a prominent activist for the Likud party. “He’s trash, why are you talking to him?” Revital shouted at Aplichuk, and took another drag on her cigarette. “He’s a leftist, he’s an ass-wipe,” she added.
A short while later we started to talk. This was Revital's fifth straight day protesting at Kfar Maccabiah. Every day she hitchhiked from Jerusalem to take part in demonstrations against what she called 'the government of the left.'
“If Yesh Atid had 30 Knesset seats, I wouldn’t have come to protest,” she explained, referring to one of the coalition’s senior partners, headed by MK Yair Lapid. “Let them establish a left-wing government with votes from the left. Here, they’re stealing votes from the right.”
Outside the hotel, chaos reigned. On one side stood the anti-Netanyahu movement Kumi Israel, of which more than 80 percent of the protestors were Ashkenazi. On the other side stood Netanyahu’s supporters, of which more than 80 percent were Mizrahi.
That’s the whole story. It, too, is wrapped up in ideologies of the free market and peace with the Palestinians. It’s a social, ethnic, class, and historical rift: a hundred years of Zionism now funneled into the question of whether Yamina MK Nir Orbach will support the new government or not. Police stand between the two camps and stop me from checking whether this question threatens a potential civil war or is a show for the cameras.
In the Netanyahu camp, tempers tend to flare. As a group they are vitriolic, rude and teeter on the verge of resorting to physical violence. At one point, they set fire to a photo of Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett. A few of them stuck close to me and chased me away with threats. But when they are separated from the group, they quickly soften. They mainly want to be heard; they feel silenced and excluded.
Every one of them bears a different insult, powerful enough to push them to leave home and work and across the country, from Petah Tikva to Moshav Herut, to Kfar Maccabiah, to the home of Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked. But their deepest purpose is to make their presence known, and show defiance.
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I asked Revital why she called me trash. “You [in Hebrew plural] force us to talk like that,” she replied. “It’s not you,” she said, addressing me personally, “it’s what you represent."
Hundreds of WhatsApp groups
Revital was born into a family of nine children, to parents who immigrated to Israel from Kurdistan in 1951 with only the clothes on their back. They settled in Jerusalem and she’s lived there ever since. When she was a youngster, welfare services removed her and her siblings from her home to live at a residential school at Kibbutz Hukok. “At breakfast, they’d bring me porridge. I didn’t even know what that was. I asked for sugar,” she said, using the slang pronunciation of the Hebrew word “sugar.” There was an 8-year-old boy there. He sat with his friends, clapped his hands and shouted “Arab girl, Arab girl.” Forty years later, the insult still lingers.
Revital is a pastry chef by profession. She says the fight for Netanyahu has not affected her financially, although she has limited means. She resists the term “poverty.” “We have no poverty, there’s difficulty, but we have food. Come on Friday night.” According to Revital, she encounters racism once or twice a week. She doesn’t feel that it limits her direction in life, but its impact on her is felt. One day she was standing on a street across from a protest near the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. “I was standing there holding a sign. A car stopped next to me and a woman said to me ‘where did you serve in the army?’ and ‘how many floors did you wash today?’ Why? Because I look Mizrahi?”
Revital gets updates from dozens of WhatsApp groups she belongs to. It’s Likud’s organizational tool, operating under the radar. No Facebook or email. Hundreds of WhatsApp groups with tens of thousands of members. Most of them are members of dozens of groups. An unending cacophony of links and posts, without fact corrections: pure “Bibism.” She takes out her phone and scrolls among the groups. Hundreds of texts a minute, lots of photos and video clips. There’s probably no cellphone plan that can manage that volume, but the system works.
At the forefront of the protest are familiar figures: Orly Lev, who organized the protest outside the home of the bereaved family of the soldier Tom Farkash in Caesarea; Rami Ben-Yehuda from Jerusalem, who led the demonstrations outside the home of Likud MK Zeev Elkin. Most refuse to talk to Haaretz. Aplichuk is one of the leading figures. Born in the former Soviet Union, he was a Yisrael Beiteinu activist, moved to Likud and began spearheading the pro-Netanyahu movement. He’s at every event, every protest, streaming everything live on his Facebook account. Unlike the others, his arguments are deeper and his tone is restrained. He says he makes his living in real estate, but because of the protests he has no deals in the offing. As a token of appreciation for his work, he is number 40 on Likud’s Knesset roster.
“I thought I’d get in, that we’d get 35 seats. And then, with the Norwegian law and departures, I’d be in," he said, referring to a law allowing an MK who becomes a minister to resign his or her Knesset seat to the next person on the roster. "But the campaign wasn’t good. They talked about vaccinations; that didn’t speak to Likudniks’ emotions. They should have scared them.” According to Aplichuk, Likud doesn’t give any money to his activist campaign. The studio where interviews were recorded was paid for by a Likud activist out of his own pocket, and the ads were printed by activists on their own dime.
The Likud within Likud
As opposed to the protest of the Religious Zionism party, which was organized and financed in mysterious ways, the Likudniks' protest is more an event of the people. Likud does not officially support it. On Thursday, the party’s Twitter account shared an invitation to demonstrate in front of Orbach’s house, which was subsequently deleted. But Likud-within-Likud has codes of its own to understand what needs to be done and when a protest is needed.
The prime minister’s son Yair supports the protests on social media. Those who attend the protests are people who identify with the family at the prime minister’s residence and with those who do its bidding: Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, of course, as well as MKs Galit Distal Atbaryan and Shlomo Karhi. The silence of other Likud lawmakers – Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat, Yuval Steinitz – is deafening. They abhor the Bibi-supporting groups yet they’re also afraid of them: They’ll go to their events for a photo-op, but they won’t join in.
One of the prominent figures in the demonstrations is Itzik Zarka, a 2 meter-tall giant of a man, every centimeter devoted lovingly to Netanyahu. Because of his appearance and height, he’s become a well-known figure. His Facebook profile shows a picture of him kissing Netanyahu on the face. I knew Zarka in the Knesset as a pleasant man. But at the protests something else comes out. In a large number of video clips, he is shown cursing, using sexually explicit language and making threats. In one video he posted he says: “Clubs, kneecaps, that way for a year or two and you won’t come near any demonstrations.” In other protests he is filmed saying: “Take out your weapons and give it to them on the head.” After that he shows a gun in a holster and announces, “I’m armed.”
Zarka lives in the settlement of Ma’ale Ephraim, where he moved 30 years ago. He’s originally from Hadera. In conversation with Haaretz he tried to explain: “I shout that we’re about to lose the country. He [Bennett] is lying. A man with a kippah on his head is lying. Yesterday I saw his closest friends weeping from pain. This man is misleading people.”
“I cursed, that’s true,” he admitted. “I said terrible things to people. I apologize. But they say terrible things to me and to my wife. I’m the best person in the world; wouldn’t hurt a fly. I can shout and curse, but I’d never harm anyone. The other day at Kfar Maccabiah, if I hadn’t been there, there would have been a disaster. I was very angry that they burned Bennett’s picture. I want to keep order. Don’t mess around with the protesters,” he said.